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The Lesser Antilles in the Age of European Expansion

The eighteen essays in this weighty tome provide much new information about a region that at one time had sufficient stature to be the cause of general European wars. Stretching from the Virgin Islands in the north to Trinidad and Aruba in the south, the Caribbean's Lesser Antilles were once the scene of the most advanced economic enterprises in the world. In the 1700s and 1800s hundreds of thousands of the eleven million slaves stolen out of Africa arrived in the Americas at tiny transit ports like Dutch St. Eustatius, or at French Guadalupe, or at the English colony of Barbados, and were the backbone of these enterprises.

The essays are grouped under five headings and trace a history which begins with contact with Arawaks and Caribs, then examines European imperial rivalries and the transatlantic economy, slavery, and finally, abolition and emancipation. Of particular note are the studies pertaining to the Caribbean's first peoples. The text makes it very clear just how little is known about the Taino, Lucayan and Island Carib. A fascinating article by William Keegan details the confused interplay between the terms Carib and Cannibal, and speculates on how European policy towards indigenous people was subsequently shaped.

This is a large work -- really five books rolled into one -- and many questions are raised: How did the sugar elite maintain the slave system when they were greatly outnumbered by Africans? To what extent did profits from the Atlantic Slave Trade provide important capital for England's Industrial Revolution? What is the legacy of the age of European expansion in places such as Jamaica or Haiti and who is best placed to answer this question?

Disappointingly, there is a lack of input from contemporary island dwellers. In the opening section, it might have been worthwhile to have solicited contributions from the Island Caribs of Dominica, or the Garifuna of Belize and Honduras, or even the Caribs and Arawaks of Guyana. But too often their contribution is dismissed as problematic. Despite this, the essays in this book are essential reading for Caribbeanists, and even for general readers, although some contributions are a little tedious.

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